This is the fiftth in a series of stories that compares units on the Georgia and Alabama teams as last season’s College Football Playoff finalists prepare for a rematch on Dec. 1 in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
ATHENS — If you’re playing the Georgia Bulldogs, here’s a good piece of advice: Whatever you do, don’t give them the football inside the final two minutes of the first half.
That has happened four times this season. The Bulldogs scored all four times.
The latest example of Georgia’s proficiency at 2-minute offense came this past Saturday against Auburn. The Bulldogs were holding a slim 13-10 lead with exactly 2:00 remaining in the second quarter when they took over at the Georgia 31 following the Tigers’ 44-yard punt. Five plays later, quarterback Jake Fromm found Terry Godwin open over the middle and the senior hauled in the mid-range pass on his hip and, with some wiggle and a couple of downfield blocks, took it all the way in for a 38-yard touchdown.
The five-play, 69-yard drive took 1:39 to execute and left only 21 seconds on the clock for Auburn. And just like that, the Bulldogs found themselves in control of a game that seemed precarious just moments earlier.
“Our offense does that every week; they do it against us,” coach Kirby Smart said of Georgia’s two-minute offense. “We practice it really hard but, I mean, so does everybody else. So, it’s one of those things that I think we’ve been efficient at because of how much we work on it, but also because Jake’s strength is being able to operate quickly and make good decisions with the ball.”
Add that final-minutes, offensive success to a résumé that includes a touchdown drive against Austin Peay and field goals against South Carolina and Florida within the final 120 seconds of the half. The average elapsed time for Georgia to score was 65 seconds.
So, yes, the Bulldogs are pretty good at this 2-minute thing. And, as Smart alluded, Fromm has a lot to do with that.
“As a quarterback, you love those situations,” Fromm said as the Bulldogs prepared for UMass this week. “It’s something that we practice and do a good job of working on through camp and through the season. It’s really something I did in high school, working that up-tempo offense, throwing every down. It’s something I like and really enjoy and it’s proven to be really successful for us.”
Alabama is pretty good at 2-minute offense, too, only theirs comes at the beginning of games. Over the first eight games of the season, the Crimson Tide scored on its first possession every time. And they did it fast. The average scoring drive took 4.5 plays and lasted 1:46, or 106 seconds.
Much of that had to do with the good work of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who made excellent use of all the 5-star talent around him. Between a strong ground game led by running back Damien Harris, one of the best wide receiver corps in football and Tagovailoa’s big arm, Alabama outscored opponents 165-31 in the first quarter and 310-58 in the first half.
That early-game success has meant Tagovailoa has played very little in the second half all season and none in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, he has produced some eye-popping stats: 67.9 completion percentage, 2,525 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. Not coincidentally, Alabama is among ranked among the Top 5 in FBS in scoring (48.5 ppg) and total offense ( 539.5 ypg) and seventh in the passing (323.7 ypg).
Tagovailoa’s favorite receiver is Jerry Jeudy, who has 45 catches for 925 yards and 10 touchdowns. But he has his pick of high-octane targets, including Devonta Smith, who beat the Bulldogs deep on the final play of last year’s national title game, and tight end Irv Smith Jr., the second-leading receiver with 31 catches and a Mackey Award semifinalist.
But the Tide’s jets have cooled slightly over the last couple of games. While their defense has shut out the last two opponents, Alabama averaged 26.5 points in those games.
Tagovailoa has been banged up in those games. He’s now dealing with a knee sprain and a reported bruised quadriceps. Accordingly, he was an of-this-world 14 of 21 for 164 yards and a touchdown and his longest throw was for 25 yards.
Coach Nick Saban insists that Tagovailoa’s fine. But the sophomore quarterback is not expected to play against The Citadel this Saturday. He almost certainly will play in the annual Iron Bowl date against Auburn the following Saturday, however.
Georgia’s passing game certainly isn’t as productive or flashy. As usual, the Bulldogs make their living running the football. But if nothing else, Georgia and Fromm are effective and efficient. The sophomore Fromm is fourth in the SEC with an efficiency rating of 169.8 (Tagovailoa leads with 207.7). Fromm is completing 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,955 yards with 19 TDs and 5 interceptions.
Fromm has spread the ball around fairly evenly. Riley Ridley is the leading receiver with 31 catches and Mecole Hardman has 28. His next two leading receivers are running back D’Andre Swift (21) and tight end Isaac Nauta (20). Lately, sophomore J.J. Holloman has emerged as a go-to target, with eight catches and two touchdowns against Florida and Kentucky.
As discussed, Fromm is especially effective when time is slipping away. Smart said having timeouts remaining in those situations helps considerably. Georgia did in each of aforementioned scoring drives, and that keeps alive the threat of the run. The Bulldogs’ exceptional backs managed to rip off at least one long run on all of the the possessions. Against Auburn, the first play was a 24-yard run off a draw by D’Andre Swift.
“Sometimes defenses change during that time because they know the pass is imminent,” Smart said. “When you have the threat of run and pass, especially against us, it makes it a lot tougher to defend, and Jake has done a good job managing the clock.”
Oddly, Georgia has a completely different issue when it’s close to the goal line as opposed to far away. The Bulldogs now have failed to score five first-and-goal situations going back to the Florida contest three games ago. That happened again against Auburn – twice.
Georgia has now resorted to bringing in freshman quarterback Justin Fields on some downs with the hopes of finding a solution. He was unable to change the result, however, and the Bulldogs again settled for short field goals.
“It’s a tighter area with a lot of bodies in there,” Fromm said. “Right now. we’re really just not executing at the highest level we need to. It just kind of is what it is. The chips just haven’t fallen our way. Hopefully they will soon because we’re going to need them to soon.”
Earlier this year, Smart joked, “we just like to score from farther out.”
That’s starting to look like no joke.